Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Jacob’s Ladder

by Joel Yanofsky

“Man plans and God laughs,” goes an old saying. Who hasn’t considered this existential Catch-22 at one time or another? In Jacob’s Ladder, an entertaining first novel by Montreal journalist Joel Yanofsky, each character is defined by his or her reaction to this conundrum. Jacob Glassman, the archetypal schlemiel and unlikely hero, flounders in chronic indecision.

A 30-something orphan, Jacob still lives in his parents’ suburban home. He spends his time ghostwriting a two-bit psychotherapist’s column for the local newspaper, Snooze, analyzing his own neuroses, and being hopelessly in love with a woman named Hope. An incurable romantic, Jacob sentimentalizes the past – his parent’s marriage, reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, his favourite movie, The Apartment – and defends the status quo.

Written as a diary, Jacob’s Ladder is filled with absurd rationalizations, self-deprecations, and wry observations about life in the suburbs. Jacob Glassman is one of the most likable existentialist characters I’ve come across. Caught in a trap of faulty logic, Jacob reasons he’s better off not planning, not making decisions (the decision you make is always the wrong one), and certainly not taking action. Sure, he’s passive, he cracks; and, on a good day, he’s passive-aggressive.

Yanofsky handles the story with aplomb and good humour, using secondary characters as absurd comic foils to Jacob’s own existential (and surprisingly eventful) predicament. Jacob’s Ladder is full of caricatures. We meet Joseph Alter, a pigeon-toed rabbinical student who lives across the street and tries to harass Jacob into observing Jewish law. Jacob at once despises and admires the neighbourhood’s pushy real estate agent and the owner of the Chinese restaurant in the local mall who “are able to believe what the rest of us can’t: that you make your own luck.” The novel’s diary form does have its limitations: these secondary characters are entertaining, but compared to Jacob they are mere cardboard cutouts.

Set in the days leading up to the Quebec referendum, and in the days of its non-aftermath, the story also serves as an allegory for the Quebec question, and the indifference that the average person feels towards it. Court Séjour (which translates as the “Short Stay”), the sleepy bedroom community half an hour north of Montreal, is a typical suburb, and a perfect backdrop for Jacob’s existential crisis – planned to preserve the status quo, to protect its inhabitants from their darkest imaginations, and designed, like its labyrinthine shopping malls, to make leaving more than just difficult: it’s pointless.

Full of absurd puns, word plays, and jokes that are occasionally a little too pat, Jacob’s Ladder takes a skewed view of the human condition in the ’burbs.